Ai Weiwei’s name cannot appear on the Internet in China. The Beijing compound in which he lives has disappeared from Google Maps. The gently subversive artist has made a career of being victimized by the cluelessly paranoid Chinese government, his influential work—typified by the sort of humane curiosity that infuriates Communist regimes—and his refusal to bow to authority making him a pet enemy of the state. China’s attempts to mute Ai’s voice have routinely backfired, empowering the artist while exposing the weaknesses of the world’s biggest nation at the height of its prosperity. On April 3, 2011, China’s most internationally famous artist was kidnapped by his own government. Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case begins three months later, on the night that Ai was released.
The Fake Case isn’t an official sequel to Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, but it might as well be, as this fascinating and necessary coda picks up right where that earlier film left off and does so with a similarly passive approach. Directed by Andreas Johnsen, a Danish filmmaker whose nationality is a testament to Ai’s international popularity, The Fake Case finds the mild-mannered iconoclast on the other side of his most grueling tribulation, for which of course there was no trial. “They’ve made up so many lies that even the truth becomes false,” Ai declares to the camera.
The circumstances of his detention are largely irrelevant here (the footage Ai watches on YouTube serves as a clever means of viewer catch-up), but Ai’s mother, recalling how her late husband, a poet, once received similar treatment, essentially diagnoses her son’s ordeal as “same shit, different day.” Of course, this film’s very existence is sufficient reason for her to have hope. His father was the victim of 20th-century ideology in 20th-century China, but that same ideology is withering in the face of a 21st-century world.
Ai emerges from prison defiant but deeply frustrated. His famous potbelly reduced to the size of a frying pan, he spends most of his time in his compound, 258 Fake Street, where the phones are tapped as if he’s keeping a secret. Of course, as the government authorities might understand if they ever bothered to assess his art, Ai’s work is candid and routinely self-reflexive. The Fake Case even observes Ai installing surveillance webcams in his own home—the police aren’t preventing Ai from sharing his subversive ideas with the Chinese people, they’re simply making it easier for the world to focus its attention on his plight.
To a certain extent, Ai’s transparency renders the film’s verité style somewhat limited and redundant; merely recording a man who has always recorded himself isn’t exactly revelatory, and The Fake Case focuses on capturing the artist without ever aspiring to become art itself. Moreover, Johnsen is never successful in (or perhaps just not interested in) distancing his documentary from the shadow of Klayman’s, and The Fake Case is a much stronger work in direct contrast to Never Sorry than it is on its own.
Nevertheless, this rather shaggy documentary (which, by virtue of the period it’s capturing, lacks the narrative momentum of Klayman’s film) begins to acquire some drama of its own as Ai admits to feeling the effects of his probation. At one point, he confesses to Johnsen’s camera: “I’m not really scared, but of course it’s very scary.” In that light, it’s curious that The Fake Case works best as a dark comedy, with one particularly memorable scene finding Ai sneaking up on a couple of newlyweds as they have their wedding photos taken and snapping a few of his own. As Johnsen embraces his subject’s mordant sense of humor, the film pierces the fog of political oppression to find a man—a father—slowly being forced to weigh his own freedom against that of his country.